I never really knew Irving Tobocman, the world-renowned architect who lived in Birmingham and designed buildings all over the state and the world.
I knew his work, which evoked the best of the Bauhaus movement and Frank Lloyd Wright, and I have often been amazed that Detroit has been home to what seemed a disproportionate number of great architects –Tobocman, Minoru Yamasaki, and back in the day when the auto industry was exploding, Albert Kahn.
Tobocman, who was 84, died in an instant Saturday, when, police say, a Jeep driven by a teenager ran a red light and killed him as he was driving through a busy intersection.
That’s something, by the way, that happens to a lot more of us than we commonly realize. Forty thousand Americans died in car crashes last year. I drive a lot, and I am acutely aware that what happened to Tobocman could easily happen to me.
Something similar happened a decade ago to the great journalist David Halberstam, and I’d guess most of us know someone whose life has been changed forever by a car crash. That’s one reason I’m not thrilled about any auto insurance reform plan that does away with the lifetime catastrophic care coverage Michigan residents now have.
But there’s something else about Tobocman’s death that I think IS important, especially if you are still figuring out your life. When his friends and family members were interviewed after his death, they didn’t talk primarily of their sorrow at losing him, but of the fullness of his life.
His daughter Susan told the press “he worked until the day he died.” Some might think that sounds appalling; he was 84, and wasn’t working to stave off starvation.
He did it because he loved it. I’ve spent my lifetime writing about people, and I can tell you one thing for certain. Those who love what they do professionally, love it so much they can’t imagine not doing it, are the happiest people in the world.
I am not talking about those who work to avoid having a life. Tobocman was an accomplished amateur musician, loved politics, theater, his family, and was an absolute nut about jazz. But he loved designing buildings most of all. Coincidentally, I read another short article last week in the Michigan Bar Journal by Geoffrey Fieger, the flamboyant trial lawyer, whose TV commercials flood the airwaves.
Fieger, unlike Tobocman, is the opposite of modest and self-effacing. Some think his name is a synonym with obnoxious. Yet in this little piece, called “Being a Trial Lawyer,” he reveals that he, like the architect, defines himself by what he does.
“I am approaching 40 years as a litigator,” he wrote. “I have never held another job after college. I lead a lonely existence. Trial lawyers are routinely reviled … in our society. When I go home at night, I’m so weary I don’t want to talk.” But then he adds, “after 40 years of practicing law, I don’t want to do anything else. My work never gets boring.”
Geoffrey Fieger and Irving Tobocman knew that the most important thing in life is to love what you do professionally. If I know anything, it is that whatever your talents or politics are, your goal should be to make that happen for you.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.